Sunday, April 13, 2014

Turkey | Mesopotamia | Mardin | Mor Behnam and Mort Sara Church

My first morning in Mardin I wandered out of my “butik” hotel—almost every hotel in Mardin claims to be a “butik” (boutique) hotel—at six o’clock, just as the sun was coming up. 
Gazi Konagi “Butik Otel”—Boutique Hotel (click on photos for enlargements). 
Three hundred feet above to the right the sun was just illuminating the cliffs and walls of the Mardin Citadel. 
Mardin Citadel looming above the town
Another view of the Citadel
A few hundred feet down the road I noticed a tea house called Camli Kösk Kiraat Hanesi, apparently the only place open on the street open at this hour. Although there was some very up-scale hotels—“butik” of course—nearby, this place was rustic: wobbly old tables and rickety wooden chairs, with faded black and white photos of local notables in what looked like nineteenth century suits on the walls. Around two tables laden with tea glasses codgers and graybeards played cards. Whether they had been there all night or were just early risers was unclear. The card game looked like it might have been going on for years. A short bald-headed man in his sixties came up with arms outspread, smiling broadly, eyes twinkling, as if I were an old acquaintance who has just returned to town.  “Please, please, sit. My name is Sharif. What is your language? German? . . . English, you say? I speak Arabic—I am Arab—Turkish, Kurdish, little French, very little English . . . Please, tea? Turkish coffee?” 

I ordered Turkish coffee with a little sugar. As the man bustled off several of the ancient card players slowly swiveled their heads in my direction and stared at me. Several give me tentative nods and waves. I got the feeling I qualified as an event in this tea room. Sharif brought my coffee along with half a glass of water. “Do you have Mirra? I asked. Sharif clapped his hands in apparent delight. “You like mirra? he beamed. “Of course, of course, we have mirra, one moment please.” He returned a couple of minutes with a small metal pitcher and a small expresso-sized cup. Mirra is highly concentrated coffee with the consistency of a light syrup. He poured a small splash of the tarry black liquid into the cup and held it out to me. From a Kurdish acquaintance of mine I knew that mirra etiquette required that I take the cup directly from his hand—he would not place it on the table—and toss back the mirra in one go, like a shot of whiskey, then hand the cup back. If you wanted more you went through the motions again. Hardcore mirra addicts sometimes did four or five shots at a time, the equivalent, I was told, of twelve or fifteen cups of regular coffee. I had two shots, then settled back to finish my Turkish coffee. This was very similar to my usual breakfast while traveling of three shots of expresso with a latte grande chaser. (Before anyone leaves a comment reminding me of my past Diatribes Against Coffee Drinkers, allow me to point out that at home in my hovel in Ulaanbaatar I am strictly a Tea Drinker. It is extremely difficult to find good tea while traveling, however [outside of China at least], so while wandering I tend to indulge in coffee). 

Braced up by mirra and Turkish coffee, the coffee world’s equivalent of a boilermaker—a shot of whiskey and a beer—I headed back out onto the street (the Turkish coffee cost 1.5 lira (71 cents), compared with four to six lira in Istanbul, and another lira for the mirra). A few hundred feet past the town square, where a few early morning mini-buses were picking up passengers, a sign on the side a building pointed the way up a side street to the Mor (saint) Behnam and Mort (female saint) Sara Church. The narrow street led up the hill to a stone portal opening into the courtyard of the church. 
Street leading to Mor Behman Church
I went in and down on a low stone wall. The place appeared to be deserted, but the still of the early morning I soon made out the sound of a low monotonous chant, like the droning of bees. Following the sound, I entered a smaller courtyard and what appeared to be the main part of the church. The door to the church was closed and bolted, but putting my ear to it I could clearly hear a chanted liturgy. I wanted to knock but I did not have the nerve to interrupt. Returning to main courtyard I sat again on the low stone wall and performed my own morning orisons, although admittedly not those dedicated to the Galilean or his alleged Father. Soon a young man in jeans and Nikes strode by and into the small outbuilding housing the steeple of the church. Then he rang the church bell for about a minute. Church bells may have first tolled on this site 1445 year ago. 
Outbuilding and steeple of the Church. According to the caretaker, this part of the church may date back to the sixth century.
The story of church begins with Mor Mathai (i.e., Saint Matthew, but obviously not the Matthew of Twelve Disciples fame), who was born in the early fourth-century near Amida (modern-day Diyarbakir) just north of Tur Abdin. The region was then part of the newly established Byzantine (East Roman) Empire. Under the first Byzantine emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306–337) Christianity had been declared the official religion of the Empire. Monasteries dedicated to the now officially sanctioned religion sprung up in the Tur Abdin region and Mathai entered one of the these. Then in 361 the nephew of Constantine, Julian “the Apostate”, became emperor of the Byzantine Empire. (For a marvelously entertaining fictional portrayal of this intriguing character see the novel Julian, by Gore Vidal; of Greco-Roman persuasion himself, Vidal was sympathetic to Julian.) 

Appalled by what he perceived to be the deleterious effects of Christianity on Byzantine society, Julian attempted to undo the work of his uncle by introducing his own idiosyncratic blend of Greco-Roman polytheism and neo-Platonic paganism. In early 362 he issued an edict guaranteeing freedom of religion, which in effect ended Christianity’s status as the official religion of the Empire. Although all religions were now supposed to be equal before the law, Julian obviously favored the followers of the old Greco-Roman gods. Christians were stripped of the rights and privileges they had enjoyed under previous emperors and before long outright persecutions of “Galileans”—Julian’s term for Christians—commenced. (Himself a writer of some note, Julian penned a polemic against Christianity entitled Against the Galileans which is still in print today and gets four star reviews on amazon.com.) Anti-Christian sentiment eventually reached the Tur Abdin region and Mathai and other monks were forced to flee south, beyond the reach of Julian and his paganish minions. (Also see The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World.)

Mathai eventually found refuge at Mount Alfaf, a mountain looming above the Nineveh plain about eighteen miles north of current-day Mosul in Iraq. This region was then part of Persian Sassanian Empire, where Zoroastrianism was the favored religion. Christianity was not officially recognized as a permissible religion in the Sassanian Empire until 409, but even before then Christians were tolerated, especially those who had fled from the Byzantines, the long-standing enemy of the Sassanians. In this environment Mathai found refuge. He built a hermitage on the side of Mt. Alfaf and eventually earned a reputation as a holy man and healer. Soon people were streaming to his hermitage to receive his blessing and be healed of their mental and physical afflictions.

One day Behnam appeared at Mor Mathai’s hermitage. Behnam was the son of the ruler of Abiadene, a kingdom in northern Mesopotamia located between two tributaries of the Tigris River; the Great Zab River, which originates in Anatolia, near Lake Van, and the Lesser Zab, which finds its source in the Zagros Mountains of Iran. The capital of Abiadene was Arbela (Arbil, in current-day Iraq). Once part of ancient Assyria, Abiadene eventually fell under of the sway of the Parthian Empire, later the Roman Empire, and finally, by the beginning of the second century a.d., the Iranian Sassanians. Although the area soon became a stronghold of Syriac Christianity, Behnam’s father, Sennacherib, espoused Zoroastrianism, the religion of the Sassanians. 

One day Behnam decided to go on a hunting trip to Mt. Alfaf region, in the north of Abiadene. He soon spotted a large deer and set out in pursuit of it. The deer led Behnam and his party to a valley just below Mt. Alfaf before it managed to escape. They camped in the valley and that night Behnam had a dream in which an angel appeared and told Behnam that there was a man living on the mountain who could show him the way to eternity. The next day Behnam climbed the mountain and came to Mor Mathai’s hermitage. Here he saw the deer which he had followed the previous day. He now noticed that it had a cross emblazoned on its forehead. Behnam then met Mor Mathai, who introduced him to the Christian Gospels and promised him that whoever believed in Jesus, the son of God, would be rewarded with eternal life. Behnam did not convert to Christianity at this time, but he had been impressed by Mathai’s saintliness and apparent healing powers. Before returning home he asked Mathai to come go to Arbela and treat his sister Sara, who was suffering from leprosy. Mor Mathai eventually traveled to Arbela but he did not enter the city. Instead, Behnam brought his sister out of the city to meet him. Mor Mathai told Sara about the miracles which Jesus had supposedly performed and instructed her in the teachings of Christianity. She decided to convert to Christianity and allowed Mor Mathai to baptize her. When she emerged from the baptism she was, according to legend, cured of her leprosy. Inspired by this apparent miracle, Behnam and forty of his companions also decided to be baptized and became Christians. (An alternative version of this legend suggests that Sara herself traveled to Mor Mathai’s hermitage at Mt. Alfaf and was cured of leprosy there. According to this variant Behnam, his forty companions, and Sara were all baptized together at Mt. Alfaf) 

Mor Mathai warned Behnam and his sister that they might be subjected to persecution by the Zoroastrians of Abiadene, but they averred that they would be happy to die as martyrs. When King Sennacherib heard that his son and daughter had converted he was infuriated, and he ordered them to renounce Christianity. They refused and attempted to flee to Mt. Alfaf and seek refuge with Mor Mathai. Soldiers sent by Sennacherib in pursuit of Behnam and his forty companions and his sister eventually caught up with them near Nimrud, in what is now Iraq, and killed them all. This took place in 350. According to legend, before they died both Behnam and Sara prayed that their father would also convert to Christianity. Soon afterwards Sennacherib fell seriously ill, and in desperation he sent for Mor Mathai. The holy man cured the king, who then decided to convert to Christianity himself. Thus were Behnam’s and Sara’s final prayers answered. 

The grateful Sennacherib later donated land near the south summit of Mt. Alfaf to Mathai. In 363 Mathai founded a monastery on the site. This monastery, named after Mor Mathai, eventually became famous for its Scriptorium, which contained an extensive collection of Syriac Christian manuscripts. From the eleventh through nineteenth centuries the monastery was looted numerous times by Kurds who lived in the area, but it still exists to this day. Each September 14th Christians of various Eastern (non-Chalcedonian) sects would meet at the monastery to commemorate the day of Mor Mathai’s death. Whether this tradition still exists in the unsettled conditions of modern-day Iraq is unclear. Mor Mathai’s original hermitage, where he first met with Behnam, is also said to still exist. In the sixth century a Persian merchant built a shrine on the hill near Nimrud where Behnam and his party were martyred. Later a monastery grew up on the site. The monastery reportedly still exists and is now administered by Syriac Catholics.

The church dedicated to Saint Behnam and Saint Sara in Mardin was built in 569 a.d. on what was previously the site of a sun-worshippers’ temple. The church is still used by the Syriac Orthodox community in Mardin and is the headquarters of the metropolitan bishop of Mardin. 
The Church of Saint Behnam and Saint Sara
Plaque in the wall of church displaying Syriac script. Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic, the language that was spoken by Jesus of Nazareth, nominal figurehead of the Galileans.
Plaque in the wall of church displaying Syriac script
Residence on the church grounds constructed with region’s characteristic tawny limestone.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting history, Don. Thanks for sharing! My Iraqi parent also believes that a large number of Babylonian Jews converted to Christianity, back in the day, and added to the numbers of Christians native to the Middle East.

    -a mes

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